‘Something is deeply wrong with our society’

05 September 2019 | Story Niémah Davids. Photos Je’nine May. Read time 6 min.
UCT chancellor, Mrs Graça Machel, says rebuilding the social fabric of our society rests on ordinary South Africans’ shoulders.

South Africa is a wounded nation, and its people carry with them deep pain and extreme anger, the University of Cape Town (UCT) chancellor, Mrs Graça Machel, told mourners during a campus memorial for UCT student Uyinene ‘Nene’ Mrwetyana.

“Something is deeply wrong with our society, and we need to get to the root cause of how and why we got to where we are today,” Machel said.

Thousands of UCT students and staff dressed in black, many carrying flowers, gathered on the steps and plaza below Sarah Baartman Hall to pay a sombre farewell to the 19-year old film and media studies student.

In attendance were members of Nene’s family; UCT’s chancellor designate, Precious Moloi-Motsepe; deputy higher education minister, Buti Manamela and other dignitaries. During proceedings the UCT choir and opera singers from the College of Music performed fitting musical tributes on stage.

Since news of Nene’s death traversed the UCT community, the province and the country, the university executive declared Wednesday, 4 September, as its official day of mourning, suspending all academic programmes for the day and the rest of the week.


“I stand here as a grandmother, a grandmother in pain. [But] we are all wounded, we are all extremely angry.”

Addressing the family and throngs of other mourners, an angry Machel said South Africa is in a crisis. The nation faces a deeply rooted problem that begins at home, in family structures, and it needs to be addressed – urgently.

“I stand here as a grandmother, a grandmother in pain. [But] we are all wounded, we are all extremely angry.”

“This child has left us, and she took a little bit of each of us with her. We are no longer who we were before she was taken from us,” Machel said.

Rebuilding our society

Machel said women and children are no longer safe in South Africa. So, the time to act is now.

“I had high dreams for my country, for my Africa.”

“What has happened? Where did we fail. This is not the country we fought for. How do we start rebuilding the social fabric of our society?” she asked.

The answer is closer than we think. It starts at home, in the workplace – creating a united front and joining forces with communities to effect change. She said South Africans, young and old, have a responsibility to help fix what is broken in the country, and everyone should be prepared to lend a hand and do what needs to be done to turn the tanker around.

“It all begins here. We need to ask the hard questions. We need to take responsibility to make our society safe again. Everyone needs to be prepared to do something,” Machel said.

She also relayed a personal story about her daughter’s lived experience, and the physical and emotional pain she endured after losing an eye following a violent attack at the hands of an abuser.

“One day my daughter told me, ‘You know mom, I am lucky because I am alive. I can see my children and I can see you. Many have succumbed and they died instantly.’ I am so pained that Nene was not lucky,” Machel said.

She also called on UCT’s academics to join hands with academics from other institutions in the country to interrogate the causes of the gender-based violence scourge, how South Africa got here and how to get out.

“In the name of this child, we have to start a programme that interrogates the real causes and how we got to this point. We have to ask, what is happening that our families are nurturing rapists and murderers,” Machel said.

An institution in sorrow – the UCT community mourns the death of film and media studies student Uyinene Mrwetyana.

‘Light in our lives’

A beautiful soul like no other who radiated like a bright light is how Nene’s friends will remember her.

Jenna Unsworth, who lived in the Roscommon House residence with Nene, said the two met when they both arrived at UCT as freshers earlier this year. Unsworth said everyone at Roscommon hoped for a miracle, and have been left shattered by her death.

“She was like in a light in our lives,” Unsworth said. She told the audience her friends will never forget Nene’s beauty, humility and “wonderful and funny” personality.

“We are so incredibly sad to have lost her; sad that we were unable to be there for her like she was for us; sad that more people won’t get to know her and the magical human that she was.”

Safety is not a privilege

UCT’s Chair of Council, Sipho Pityana described Nene’s tragic, untimely death as brutal, barbaric and cruel, and said the UCT community is reeling and saddened by the news.

He said it was symbolic that the campus community came out to celebrate her life outside the Sarah Baartman Hall. Just like Nene, Sarah too suffered exploitation and abuse during her life.

Reflecting on the way Nene was killed, Pityana told mourners that if the post office was an unsafe place for a young girl, in broad daylight, then that would make cinemas and malls unsafe too.

“No space is safe anymore. But we need to demand and insist that every space becomes a safe space,” he said.

He committed to ensuring that UCT becomes a safer place for all staff and students.

“In her memory we are inspired to make sure of that. Safety is not a privilege; it’s a hard-earned right.”

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